Compared to many sections of the East Coast effected by Hurricane Irene, my hometown of Millburn, NJ is getting back on it’s feet rather quickly, but not fast enough. Widespread complaints about the how long the utility companies are taking to restore service is well documented. It took three full days for crews from Denver, CO to arrive to work on restoration of power in Ridgefield, CT as seen on ABC News with Brian Williams.
The front page of every newspaper has carried the story that New Jersey has been declared a state of emergency and five counties are elligble for disaster relief. The Star Ledger showed a picture of a man in Lincoln Park getting around his neighborhood by boat as of September 1st; four days after the storm. After 51 years, he is now ready to sell and move on, but who is going to buy that house and what is it worth?
With the Center of the Downtown Business District and the South Mountain section ravaged by flood waters, fallen trees, loss of power, tainted water, the question I am continually asked is: “How will this impact real estate values?”
After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, we were told this was a 100 year flood. Nobody can forget the anguish and devastation from Hurrican Katrina in New Orleans, and yet here comes another tropical storm; Hurrican Lee is battering the Gulf Coast rignt now. So many safeguards were put into place to prevent this from happening again, how can we assure people that they can invest in real estate and be safe in their homes in the next ten or twenty years? What can our towns do to protect the commercial and residential community from living through this nightmare again?
This is not the first time that Millburn has been devastated. In my lifetime, back in the 1960’s, there have been several of these torrential storms, that have wreaked havoc on our business district and our residential communities. My dad, Martin Eastman owned a building next to the river on the corner of Millburn and Main, that flooded repeatedly when the river rose to the windows. Reports say we are better off than towns like Fairfield and Patterson, where the water has not yet subsided, days after the rain ended, atleast in Millburn the water was gone by the next day. Many homes have been condemned in Bergen County where they are structurally unsafe after sitting in deep water for so many days.
The videos on YouTube, links my friends posted on facebook and photos in The Millburn Item have been painful to see, as we took at real-time views of the flood waters rising into store fronts and into the streets where our good friends live. Driving around town seeing huge piles of runined furnishings, carpet, childrens toys and a lifetime of memories and photos, cannot be erased from our memories, even though most of the cluttered sidewalks were cleared within 48 hours.
A wall comprising hundreds of feet of stone was erected to correct this problem on Ridgewood Road, the bridge was just reconstructed on Millburn Avenue for over nine months, basements were fortified, sump pumps were added, drains were widened, pipes were installed, generators and back up batteries were purchased. Extensive measures were taken and yet the water still flowed into the wrong places and poured over the lower side of the wall at the corner of Ridgewood Road and Mountainview Road.
Rumor has it that two large dumpsters floated into the tributary of the Rahway River and got lodged like a dam under the bridge on Millburn Avenue and stopped water from flowing so it had no choice but to go over the bridge. The videos do not tell that story, but if that did happen, would the outcome have been different? It’s hard to say.
The water company has declared the water is safe to drink, dozens of fallen trees are mostly removed with traffic flowing again, and many of the restaurants have been cleaned, inspected and reopened in record time. Homes are still without power, days after the Hurricane and Millburn Patch reported that many are frustrated with the slow response and asking “when will it be normal again?”
Luckily, The Millburn Deli , my favorite place for lunch, was able to clean out and reopen by September 1st. Even though water filled their basement, as it flowed into and destroyed Taylor Park and the neighborhood known as the Washington School area behind them, they had the manpower and resources to gut their place, fill two huge dumpsters, bleach and sterilize, restock and pass inspection by the health department in record time. Tinga, a popular Mexican Restaurant across the street, was not as fortunate, their entire floor was runined as flood waters pushed through the basement ceiling and decimated the seating area. It could be another month until they are ready to open.
The Millburn Fire Department, Police Department, Sanitation Department, and the local government have done a herculian job getting people pumped out, supplying bottled water to people most effected, removing piles of debris that lined sidewalks for block after block, in what is known as the charming town of Millburn.
Still there were many who were frustrated by how slowly the clean up progressed and by incorrect information sent out by automated messages to the township. The town was featured in reports on television on CNN and again on ABC with interviews by Diane Sawyer for the amazing work that was done to help get Millburn, NJ into recovery mode, but there was simply too much for the crews to handle in one or two days. One of the carpet cleaning companies that I recommend, JMP Maintenance in New Providence, NJ, told me they had seventy phone calls for assistance on Monday morning. Same story with a tree company; they were too overwhelmed to even return my calls for two days! It was impossible to help all of these desperate people in the first few days.
So what can people do to make sure they don’t flood again? What are the safeguards?
1. It goes without saying that waterproofing your basement with a French drain and sump pump are the first steps. Most of these homes already have more than one sump pump.
2. Furnaces should already raised off the floor on blocks, but how high is is high enough? Oil tanks that are in the basement or garage must be firmly BOLTED to the floor or they can float away in a big flood.
3. Many homeowners did not have a back up battery, so after the power went off, the sump pump stopped working. A back up battery will not work for more than 8 hours so a second battery might be called into action for a longer power outage. How many people have two back up batteries? From what I can tell in my recent conversations, no one has a second battery and I have heard from several people that their back up batteries did not work for as long as projected.
4. If your sump pump could not handle the volume of water from the rain or your power went off and your back up battery did not last long enough you might try the Sump Jet-Water Powered Backup System Pump. This connects into your water main, and with purchase and labor, it is usually under $800.
5. Consider a generator. This could have solved the water penetration for many and kept a refrigerator running and some lights on, but not all would have been able to manage the levels of rising water simply by having power. When the water is already coming up to the first floor, how is the generator supposed keep pumping it out?
A good home owners insurance policy is crucial, but how can a flooded house obtain a decent policy with a pre-existing condition and all of this damage? Not everyone is in a position to pay to rebuild and replace. Insurance claims are backed up and people need relief faster than companies can issue checks. Many are already sitting on homes where they can’t recoup what they paid in the height of the market in 2006 or 2007, and they have already put in new kitchens and baths that may not bring them a profit.
This is new territory that has to be explored. Many transactions in progress are now at risk of not closing in September, due to wariness of buyers and the inability to get insurance binders and appraisals that meet with the selling price of pre-Irene market value. Before closings can occur, many lenders are requiring inspections both inside and out with photos, to document that there is no damage. Some of these loan commitments expire before the work can be done, let alone evaluated.
We find ourselves in unchartered territory with how to comfort buyers and sellers in this situation. If a hundred year flood arrives a mere twelve years after the last one, and wreaks total havoc and more damage than the last disaster, how do we assure people that they are safe? How can sellers convince buyers is it okay to move into a home that has flooded repeatedly? How can the next flood be avoided and how much money will someone deduct from the value of home that is still standing, but has gone through this war with water once again?
I wish I had the answers to these questions.